This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia continues to struggle with chronic absence, according to a new report from Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center.
The report, called Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Sucesss, analyzed data from the 2015-16 school year and found that 32 percent of District students missed 18 or more days of school, the recommended definition of chronic absence. The report categorizes this level as “extreme.” It is almost twice the statewide number of 17 percent and more than twice the national figure of 15 percent.
More recent numbers from the District indicated that for the 2017-18 school year, 27 percent of students were classified as chronically absent, an improvement, but still classified in the “high” level, according to the report’s metrics.
School-by-school attendance varies widely. For example, high-performing Masterman High, a special-admission school, reported that 99 percent of its students attended school 90 percent or more of the time, while at Sayre High, a neighborhood school, that number was 21 percent.
To address attendance, the District has introduced initiatives such as the #AttendanceHero campaign and Read by 4th’s attendance ambassadors.
The District also reported a boost in attendance as a result of its expanded breakfast program.
The District’s metric for successful attendance is for students to be at school 95 percent of the time. From 2016-17 to 2017-18, that share rose from 38 percent to 46 percent.
Chronic absence has been considered an indicator of academic achievement. As early as pre-K and kindergarten, missing too many days in school can lead to difficulty in reading. This can be catastrophic before 4th grade, when a student switches from learning to read to reading to learn.
Older students who miss too much class time, according to researchers, risk academic difficulty, which can lead to dropping out.
“You want to notice chronic absence as soon as it’s happening,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. Otherwise, the situation can turn into an academic issue requiring remediation.
Chang also said that school-level support can be crucial in addressing chronic absence.
“Part of what makes kids come to school is a relationship when they’re connected to the staff,” she said. “Relationships are essential to motivating kids to show up to school, even when it’s tough.”
Most affected are children living in poverty, those who have chronic conditions and disabilities, and/or those who experience housing instability.
According to the report, eight million students nationwide are absent more than 10 percent of the year. That’s an increase of 800,000 from the previous year. However, the report credits “improved reporting accuracy by school districts and states” for part of this growth.
To get a sense of chronic absenteeism throughout the nation, the report also features an interactive tool using the 2015-16 data that was put together by the Hamilton Project.